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Closer rankings


Two Wednesdays ago I was mired in Round 11 of a competitive draft when I shot a quick phone call to a trusted fantasy friend and co-worker. The clock was winding down and I had yet to take a closer, so I asked what my boy thought of B.J. Ryan. Since all the big names had been taken, I was torn between Ryan, Kerry Wood, Francisco Cordero, Brian Wilson and Matt Capps. He recommended Ryan, giving me the encouragement and support I sought, and I took him. This was literally the day before the news broke that Ryan had lost considerable velocity from his heater -- which normally spikes at about 92-93 m.p.h. And now I'm regretting my choice, especially since I didn't end up with another solid closer.

Early in his career, Ryan's slingshot, jerky delivery made throwing strikes a chore. Over a few years in the O's bullpen, he made the transition from lefty specialist to setup man, and eventually became the primary table-setter for Jorge Julio -- who was spectacular as a rookie in 2002 but struggled in subsequent years. By the end of 2004, Ryan was the undisputed star of the bullpen and making four times as much scratch as Julio -- so it made sense both financially and logistically that he took over the glamorous role of O's closer.

In 2004 and '05 with Baltimore and '06 with Toronto, Ryan was at the top of his game. His control had improved dramatically, his sharp-breaking slider was nearly unhittable, and his low-90s fastball had great tailing movement. Correspondingly, Ryan's numbers were amazing:

But in May 2007, the Louisiana native's trademark sliders -- jettisoned frequently from his enormous 6-foot-6-inch frame during a whopping 210 appearances in three seasons -- got the better of his elbow. He underwent Tommy John surgery after a handful of April outings, and was reactivated less than a full year after the surgery in April 2008.

When Ryan returned, his arm probably wasn't fully healed and his slider wasn't quite as sharp, but he was still fairly effective. Forearm problems kept him out of 11 games, but the crafty fireman finished '08 with 32 saves, a 2.95 ERA and 58 Ks in 58 innings.

Now, he's throwing in the low-to-mid-80s, and Cito Gaston is volubly concerned -- enough that he's already announced Scott Downs is in the running for Ryan's job.

While nothing's set in stone, I anticipate Ryan won't be back to his old self this season. The chaotic, sneaky motion that helped exasperate hitters also did a number on his wing. The popular myth that arms come back stronger following Tommy John surgery is a crock. It's logically unsound and has been dispelled by many of the leading surgeons in the field, including Dr. James Andrews. The probable truth is that extensive, intense rehabilitation following the surgery sometimes makes arms stronger -- and allows velocity to jump a few ticks on the radar gun.

Like I said last week -- beware any closer whose tricky, bumpy delivery helps him get outs, because it could also get him a few weeks or months out of action. Let's get to the pecking order. Since we're still waiting for the season to begin, I've once again included last year's statistics for each starting closer in italics under his name.

Mariano Rivera, NYY39-for-40 (97.5%), 70.2 IP, 77 Ks, 1.40 ERA, 0.67 WHIPRivera has only given up two hits in six innings this spring, with 10 Ks. Damaso Marte, Brian Bruney, Jose Veras and even Joba Chamberlain are all in the running for the job if Mo ever goes down. Chamberlain is currently the Yankees' No. 5 starter and is 3-0 with a 3.68 ERA in five spring training starts. But Joe Girardi is still considering using him out of the bullpen if he can't limit the number of pitches he throws per inning.Next in line: Damaso MarteThird in line: Edwar Ramirez, Brian Bruney

Jonathan Papelbon, BOS41-for-46 (89.1%), 69.1 IP, 77 Ks, 2.34 ERA, 0.95 WHIPBehind Papelbon is Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito and Manny Delcarmen. Both Okajima and Saito are effective setup men, but Delcarmen struggled a bit this spring. According to the Bill James Handbook, Delcarmen led American League pitchers (with a minimum of 50 innings) in 2008 with the fastest average fastball at 95.5 mph. In 74.1 innings, the Boston native had a 3.27 ERA, 72 Ks, 28 BB, held opposing batters to a .205 average and finished with 18 holds.Next in line: Hideki OkajimaThird in line: Takashi Saito, Manny Delcarmen

Joe Nathan, MIN39-for-45 (86.7%), 67.2 IP, 74 Ks, 1.33 ERA, 0.90 WHIPNathan's shoulder looks fine heading into the season, although he hasn't seen much work. He has multiple pitches and a very effective four-seam fastball that gets into the high 90s. He's also working on a cutter, so watch out, AL!Next in line: Jesse CrainThird in line: Craig Breslow, Luis Ayala

Brad Lidge, PHI41-for-41 (100%), 69.1 IP, 92 Ks, 1.95 ERA, 1.23 WHIPLidge opened up spring training complaining of some forearm tightness, and has looked unspectacular if not restrained thus far. But his near-perfection last season bodes well for 2008.Next in line: Ryan MadsonThird in line: Chad Durbin

Joakim Soria, KC42-for-45 (93.3%), 67.1 IP, 66 Ks, 1.60 ERA, 0.86 WHIPSoria allowed three runs in the ninth on Monday in an appearance versus the Cubs, but it's nothing to worry about; he pitched well all spring until getting roughed up against Chicago. Even Mo takes his lumps once in a blue moon.Next in line: Juan CruzThird in line: Kyle Farnsworth, Ron Mahay

Francisco Rodríguez, NYM62-for-69 (89.9%), 68.1 IP, 77 Ks, 2.24 ERA, 1.29 WHIPIf you ended up with K-Rod in your draft, you could be in line for some enormous numbers. You could also be in line for some heartache unless you handcuffed him to J.J. Putz -- a proven closer who'll nip at his heels if the new single-season saves champ endures any setbacks.Next in line: J.J. PutzThird in line: Pedro Feliciano

Jonathan Broxton, LAD14-for-22 (63.6%), 69 IP, 88 Ks, 3.13 ERA, 1.17 WHIPBroxton announced this week he'll be throwing a new, two-seam fastball that runs in on right handers. While that's a great thing for the Dodgers, it's going to be a bit scary for NL batters. Not sure if his two-seamer will break 100 m.p.h., but his four-seamer certainly does.Next in line: Hong-Chih KuoThird in line: Corey Wade, Guillermo Mota

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Bobby Jenks, CWS30-for-34 (88.2%), 61.2 IP, 38 Ks, 2.63 ERA, 1.10 WHIPIf there's a wild card in the White Sox bullpen, he's 36-year-old right-hander Octavio Dotel -- who began his career in 1999 with the Mets as a starter and has been with six different teams since 2004. Dotel always has struggled to remain healthy, although he fanned 92 batters in just 67 innings last year. If some terrible fate should befall both Jenks and uber-effective lefty setup man Matt Thornton, Dotel would probably get the nod.Next in line: Matt ThorntonThird in line: Octavio Dotel, Scott Linebrink

José Valverde, HOU44-for-51 (86.3%), 72 IP, 83 Ks, 3.38 ERA, 1.18 WHIPIn Houston, no news about your closer is good news. Valverde should be good to go for '09.Next in line: LaTroy HawkinsThird in line: Doug Brocail

Kerry Wood, CLE34-for-40 (85%), 66.1 IP, 84 Ks, 3.26 ERA, 1.09 WHIPWood's back hasn't flared up since the start of camp, and he's only surrendered one ER in four innings of work -- highlighted by three strikeouts and no walks. The Indians haven't had a closer of Wood's caliber since Jose Mesa, but it remains to be seen how effective the injury-plagued right-hander will be in back-to-back seasons.Next in line: Rafael PerezThird in line: Rafael Betancourt, Jensen Lewis

Brian Wilson, SF41-for-47 (87.2%), 62.1 IP, 67 Ks, 4.62 ERA, 1.44 WHIPThere's finally some "Good Vibrations" in San Fran with Wilson closing, and refusing to allow a single run this spring. OK, the Beach Boys joke was completely unnecessary. Wilson is far from a sure thing, since he sometimes struggles to find the strike zone. But even the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson seems a little out of it, and he's a freakin' musical genius.Next in line: Jeremy AffeldtThird in line: Bob Howry

Matt Capps, PIT21-for-26 (80.1%), 53.2 IP, 39 Ks, 3.02 ERA, 0.97 WHIPCapps missed seven weeks last season in July and August due to a sore shoulder. However, he's looked good since taking the time off and is usually pretty effective on consecutive days.Next in line: John GrabowThird in line: Sean Burnett, Tyler Yates

Kevin Gregg, CHI (NL)29-for-38 (76.3%), 68.2 IP, 58 Ks, 3.41 ERA, 1.28 WHIPSweet Lou Pinella made up his mind and Gregg's value vaulted up the draft boards. Many believe Carlos Marmol is better suited for a closing role, but I think Gregg can hold down the job.Next in line: Carlos MármolThird in line: Aaron Heilman, Jeff Samardzija

Francisco Cordero, CIN34-for-40 (85%), 70.1 IP, 78 Ks, 3.33 ERA, 1.41 WHIPQuestionable pitch selection in tight situations and a tendency to focus on runners has led to disastrous results for Cordero in the past. Cordero had arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle in September to remove a bone spur, but Dusty Baker said his struggles this spring were unrelated to the ankle. I'm not too worried about Cordero once the season is in full swing, but since didn't start a throwing program until late and his running was restricted slightly at the start of camp, he could start slowly.Next in line: David WeathersThird in line: Jared Burton

Brian Fuentes, LAA30-for-34 (88.2%), 62.2 IP, 82 Ks, 2.73 ERA, 1.10 WHIPJose Arredondo has pitched well since coming back from a hip injury he suffered in early March, and would likely be the closer should Fuentes struggle or sustain injury.Next in line: Jose ArredondoThird in line: Scot Shields

Mike González, ATL14-for-16 (87.5%), 33.2 IP, 44 Ks, 4.28 ERA, 1.19 WHIPRafael Soriano is making a ton of money. Once healthy, he provides a viable alternative to Gonzalez -- never the most durable of closers.Next in line: Rafael SorianoThird in line: Blaine Boyer, Buddy Carlyle

Chad Qualls, ARI9-for-17 (52.9%), 73.2 IP, 71 Ks, 2.81 ERA, 1.07 WHIPThe Arizona Daily Star just revealed that Qualls, who already possesses a dastardly sinker and hard slider, is gaining confidence in third pitch -- a splitter that he's rarely used since his college days: "It's always kinda been in the back pocket," Qualls said. "I usually come in when it's a close game or when runners are on, and I don't really want to get beat with my third-best pitch, but I kinda messed with it all spring and threw it a few times last year, and this spring I've actually had some success with it." Sounds good to me.Next in line: Tony PeñaThird in line: Jon Rauch

Joel Hanrahan, WAS9-for-13 (69.2%), 84.1 IP, 93 Ks, 3.95 ERA, 1.36 WHIPThere are minor concerns about his velocity -- since he was only throwing in the high-80s out of Team USA's bullpen during the WBC. The situation isn't B.J. Ryan-bad just yet, but he should be monitored out of the gate.Next in line: Joe BeimelThird in line: Saul Rivera, Jesus Colome

Brandon Morrow, SEA10-for-12 (83.3%), 64.2 IP, 75 Ks, 3.34 ERA, 1.14 WHIPInitially projected to be a starter, Morrow is now the closer-of-the-moment in Seattle, allowing the Mariners to finalize the movement of David Aardsma, Roy Corcoran and Mark Lowe into setup roles. Miguel Batista, will be the long reliever, and Tyler Walker was released. The 24-year-old Morrow has a blistering fastball, a closer's mentality and the inherent ability to dominate hitters. He could be a late-round steal for many owners if he stays healthy.Next in line: Mark LoweThird in line: David Aardsma, Roy Corcoran

Heath Bell, SD0-for-7 (0%), 78 IP, 71 Ks, 3.58 ERA, 1.21 WHIPWhile Bell, the new San Diego closer, wasn't the best setup man in baseball last season, he may have been in 2007, when he posted a 2.02 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP and held opponents to a .185 batting average. Sure, he was 0-for-7 in save situations last season, but that statistic is a bit unreliable. How many times did Bruce Bochy hand him the ball in the ninth and say "You're my closer?" Limiting his appearances to classic save situations and taking over from a legendary bullpen ace should help ring Heath's bell.Next in line: Cla MeredithThird in line: Duaner Sanchez

B.J. Ryan, TOR32-for-36 (88.9%), 58 IP, 58 Ks, 2.95 ERA, 1.28 WHIPI said last week that it'd be wise to stay away from Toronto's closer situation until a more lucid picture emerges -- and the reports from Gaston have only confirmed my hunch that the situation is untenable. If you're counting on Ryan and have an extra roster spot, it might be worth picking up Downs, a crafty lefty who could quickly be called into action. Former Jays closer Jeremy Accardo, who began 2008 with three solid outings but eventually got roughed up regularly and was replaced -- was optioned to Triple-A Las Vegas Tuesday.Next in line: Scott DownsThird in line: Jesse Carlson, Jason Frasor

Huston Street, COL18-for-25 (72%), 70 IP, 69 Ks, 3.73 ERA, 1.21 WHIPManager Clint Hurdle is expected to announce at any moment that Street has officially won the closing job. But Manny Corpas isn't far behind, and he has the poise necessary to surpass Street if the Oakland castoff struggles to adjust to the rarified air in Colorado.Next in line: Manny CorpasThird in line: Alan Embree, Taylor Buchholz (elbow)

George Sherrill, BAL29-for-37 (78.4%), 53.1 IP, 58 Ks, 4.73 ERA, 1.50 WHIPChris Ray is really pushing Sherrill this spring, and despite manager Dave Trembley's insistence that Sherrill's his closer, I wouldn't be amazed if he was in a setup role by the All-Star break -- with Ray working the ninth.Next in line: Chris RayThird in line: Jamie Walker

Fernando Rodney, DET13-for-19 (68.4%), 40.1 IP, 49 Ks, 4.91 ERA, 1.59 WHIPBrandon Lyon gave up four straight home runs in the sixth inning of one game last week and is now out of the job. Rodney got the call and should be just as questionable -- since he's struggled in that role his whole career. But Jim Leyland doesn't sound like he has too much confidence in either guy. He said he doesn't know if Rodney is going to come in every time: "I wouldn't make a big deal that I named Fernando Rodney the closer, because I really haven't." Really? What?Next in line: Brandon LyonThird in line: Joel Zumaya, Bobby Seay

Frank Francisco, TEX5-for-11 (45.5%), 63.1 IP, 83 Ks, 3.13 ERA, 1.15 WHIPI'm standing by my claim that this isn't a safe bullpen situation, given Francisco's temperament and the previous resumes of C.J. Wilson, Eddie Guardado and Derrick Turnbow. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Turnbow was held out of Monday's scheduled appearance with a sore knee -- and there are rumors he could be sent down.Next in line: C.J. WilsonThird in line: Eddie Guardado, Derrick Turnbow

Troy Percival, TB28-for-32 (87.5%), 45.2 IP, 38 Ks, 4.53 ERA, 1.23 WHIPPercival appears to be ready for the '09 season. Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler could both get a crack if Percival struggles or hits the DL. Jason Isringhausen, in breaking news, has agreed to go to the DL to create some extra roster room and give himself time to build more arm strength. Like I said last week, these guys are all on the fence, since the Rays have big expectations for this season and don't want to blow games in the ninth.Next in line: Dan WheelerThird in line: Grant Balfour, Jason Isringhausen (DL)

Brad Ziegler, OAK11-for-13 (84.6%), 59.2 IP, 30 Ks, 1.06 ERA, 1.16 WHIPZiegler has much more job security now that Joey Devine felt a twinge in his elbow, is headed to see Dr. Andrews and will start the season on the 15-day DL. For now, it appears Russ Springer and Santiago Casilla will set up Ziegler.Next in line: Russ SpringerThird in line: Santiago Casilla, Joey Devine (elbow)

Matt Lindstrom, FLA5-for-6 (83.3%), 57.1 IP, 43 Ks, 3.14 ERA, 1.45 WHIPLindstrom is supposed to be back from a rotator cuff injury and appears to be ready to assume closing duties once the season begins. Leo Nunez, Reynel Pinto and Scott Proctor (DL, elbow -- out until May) round out the bullpen and could emerge if Lindstrom can't handle being Florida's fireman.Next in line: Leo NunezThird in line: Reynel Pinto, Scott Proctor

Jason Motte, STL1-for-1 (100%), 11 IP, 16 Ks, 0.82 ERA, 0.73 WHIPChris Perez is headed to triple-A Memphis, where he'll recover from his arm problems in a place less noteworthy than St. Louis for about 100 innings. At some point, he'll be the Cards' closer. In the meantime, the Cards will make do with several pitchers, including Motte, Ryan Franklin, Pérez (when he returns), and the underwhelming Brad Thompson.Next in line: Ryan FranklinThird in line: Brad Thompson, Chris Perez

Carlos Villanueva, MIL1-for-1 (100%), 108.1 IP, 93 Ks, 11 HLDs, 4.07 ERA, 1.31 WHIPVillanueva, Seth McClung, Todd Coffey and David Riske are probably in some sort of committee situation, with Villanueva emerging as the front-runner. He's not a top-line option since he's really never made the best of save situations, but he could get you a few saves to start out the season. Just stay tuned to Hoffmann's status and adjust accordingly.Next in line: Seth McClungThird in line: Todd Coffey, David Riske

Trevor Hoffman, MILDue to his strained right oblique muscle, Hoffman was placed on the 15-day disabled list Monday, so MLB's all-time saves leader won't start the season as the Brewers closer. But the move is retroactive to Mar. 27, so Hoffman could join the squad about a week into the season. My feeling is that if Villanueva pitches well in his stead, they won't rush him back, since strained oblique muscles seem to only get better with rest.

Joey Devine, OAKDevine was slated to be a co-closer with Ziegler, but according to San Francisco's Contra Costa Times, the promising young righty said elbow pain "came back as soon as I got to game-ready, the first part of spring training. That tells me there is something there." He's supposed to visit with Dr. Andrews next week.